Christopher Kane: A Full-On, Nerdy Case Study
NB: I'm in the process of detoxing my files, sifting through five years' worth of writing and pictures and memories, deciding what to cull and what to keep. Today I came across a huge folder of work from my days of being a Fashion Journalism student and found this assignment that my friends hated writing but I genuinely loved. I chose to write a case study on Christopher Kane. It's a few years old so, obviously, it isn't as up-to-date as I'd like (note that Kane has since celebrated his 10th anniversary as a designer, created some dreamy ad campaigns and finally, gloriously ventured into e-commerce) but could possibly be an interesting read if you're a fellow Kane aficionado, or indeed if you're considering studying Fashion Journalism at uni but don't know what to expect.
Nick Knight describes Central Saint Martins as a “prestigious boot camps for fashion innovators of the future.” (in Davies, 2009:11) In the case of Christopher Kane, many would agree with Knight. In September 2006, six months after graduating from Central Saint Martins, Kane made his London Fashion Week debut. Nine years later, the Glasgow-born designer is one of British fashion's key figures; according to Ruth Chapman, joint CEO of luxury boutique chain Matches, Kane is “set to become an iconic British brand.” (in Knowles, 2013) In this case study, I aim to analyse this brand.
Since his inaugural collection, Kane has collected numerous accolades for his work, including the British Fashion Awards' New Designer of the Year 2007, and Womenswear Designer of the Year 2013. The first Kane collection to be sold by Net-a-Porter sold out within 24 hours (Milligan, 2009). Kane, who works on his label alongside his sister Tammy, grew up in a working-class environment, and his upbringing has influenced his creations greatly. Sarah Mower notes: “The key to Kane lies in [his] vivid teen memories … he talks backstage about twisted sisters, school scrapbooks, liquid-filled pencil cases, cults and horror movies … all vibrating, just beneath the surface, with the things he saw and people he knew while he was in school.” (2012)
Mark Tungate remarks that celebrity endorsements “give brands a well-defined personality, [bringing] with them a rich fantasy world to which consumers aspire,” adding that people “form an attachment to celebrities, regarding them as friendly faces and reliable arbiters of taste.” (2012:106) Kane has amassed a loyal celebrity fan base, including Alexa Chung, Emma Watson and Carey Mulligan, all of whom are plausible “arbiters of taste.” Kane seems wise to both the benefits and disadvantages of celebrity endorsement, having discussed his wariness to lend clothes to celebrities who do not usually embody 'high fashion': “I've worked too hard for my stuff to be seen on the front of the Sun newspaper … I'm worried that that would affect my credibility,” he says in one early interview (Frankel, 2007).
Such astuteness regarding the power of celebrity means that Kane has also gained publicity for dressing society figures like Samantha Cameron and the Duchess of Cambridge. Kate Middleton wore a custom-made Christopher Kane satin coat dress for 2012's Olympic Opening Ceremony (Carreon, 2012) – this was undoubtedly good PR for the brand, as Middleton's notable style influence has been coined 'the Kate Middleton effect' by the national press. Journalist Megan Gibson explains: “almost any garment [Middleton] appeared in sold out in a matter of days, if not hours.” (2012)
But how much do Kane's non-famous, paying customers have to spend to attain one of his celebrity-endorsed looks? At the time of writing, the cheapest Christopher Kane item available on Net-a-Porter is a £350 jersey bralet (its fabric composition comprises 80% viscose and 20% polyamide – both cheap, synthetic fabrics) while a pair of appliquéd denim shorts costs £1100. It is unsurprising, then, that luxury labels are alienating to anyone other than the super-rich. Diana Crane notes that, “owing to the cost of materials and their labor-intensive production, [designer clothes] are beyond the reach of all but a privileged few.” (2000:136)
One route luxury designers can take to attract a new, albeit less financially powerful, pool of customers is to team up with high street brands to produce clothing with more accessible prices. According to Dana Thomas, designer collaborations with 'fast fashion' stores like H&M and Topshop have “rattled the luxury industry.” (2007: Chapter 10, Kindle location 4569) The Christopher Kane brand has long associations with Topshop – which Virginia Grose identifies as “one of the first high street retailers to offer designer collaborations and celebrity ranges” (2011:95) – and Kane's third collaboration with the store in 2009 resulted in Topshop's largest designer partnership to date. The 39-piece range comprised designs full of Kane's signature quirks, such as a neon colour palette, and vest tops emblazoned with photographic animal prints, which were similar to his SS09 catwalk offerings.
Such brand partnerships generate extra income for luxury designers. When the aforementioned Topshop collection was released, Kane's brand was only two years old and undoubtedly generating less capital than it does today, so these financial perks would have been invaluable to the young designer. Julie Bradford points out further benefits of a 'high-low' collaboration, saying: “For the high-street chain, it enhances their fashion credibility … for the customer it allows them a little piece of the designer universe at a price they can afford.” (2014: Chapter 4, Kindle location 2065)
Kane has also partnered in the past with beauty brand Lancome, creating limited editions of their Juicy Tubes lip glosses in March 2008, and in April 2015 he launched a beauty range in collaboration with Nars cosmetics. Kane says of the latter: “Not everyone can afford my clothes, so this is a great way to buy into the brand.” (in Ings-Chambers, 2015). Kane is clearly business-minded, showing awareness of how the likes of cosmetics allow consumers to buy into a piece of luxury, even if they cannot yet afford designer clothes. However, I believe this strategy would be more more effective if Kane decided to release his own range of entry-level products like fragrance or cosmetics, rather than collaborate with another brand, as a collaboration could be seen as watering down the lofty credentials of luxury fashion; existing Kane customers might even see collaborations as the brand simply 'selling out'. Eugene Rabkin agrees, comparing these collaborations to “reading Cliff's notes rather than the book.” She adds: “'The democratisation of fashion' is really the bastardisation of fashion; that is, taking a designer's ideas and watering them down for mass consumption.” (2012)
In January 2013, a 51% share of the Christopher Kane brand was purchased by Kering (named PPR at the time of the Kane acquisition), a luxury goods conglomerate that houses esteemed brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga in its portfolio. Drapers reported: “The acquisition has been met with a warm response from Kane's stockists, who are predicting great things for the partnership.” (Knowles, 2013)
In an interview, the managing director of Kering's luxury division, Alexis Babeau, stated that Kering aimed to retain the label's British heritage, saying: “We are not planning to implement a big change, but it will grow where it needs to.” (in Parry, 2013) Despite Babeau's claims, several changes have taken place, including the establishment of the brand's online presence. However, it took over a year after Kering's intervention for Christopher Kane to make its first tentative step into the world of social media; an Instagram account for the brand (@christopherkaneofficial) was launched in March 2014. While social media reach has been expanding for years, many fashion brands were initially sceptical about online interactions – digital marketer Macala Wright acknowledges: “Fashion has traditionally been aspirational … the thought of going social scares many brands because they're not sure how to translate these feelings into online traction,” (2009) – but Kane's Instagram currently boasts over 60,000 followers, so the numbers alone speak volumes.
May 2015 marked the launch of an arguably long-overdue website, christopherkane.com, which, although lacking in e-commerce capabilities, includes a visual archive of the label's previous collections, as well as contact details, a list of stockists and photographs of Kane's flagship store, which opened on London's Mount Street in February 2015.
Crane notes that, “Designer clothes are generally sold in store whose interior decoration is deliberately created to convey an image of high culture, not unlike an art gallery,” and this certainly seems true of Kane's flagship, which is a two-storey building with a gallery-like minimalistic design. Kane's creations are the focal point, being the only source of colour and vibrancy as they clash against the building's all-white interior. As a result, the store is successful in that it allows the product, rather than the building, to shine – much like an art gallery. Furthermore, opening on Mount Street could be seen as a conscious move to retain some of the brand's youth and quirkiness; many of fashion's legendary labels, such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, have stores on Bond Street and Sloane Street – London's traditional luxury shopping destinations. Mount Street houses more modern brands like Roksanda Ilincic and Marc Jacobs, thus attracting a more creative, fashion-forward clientele which is more likely to be interested in a younger brand like Christopher Kane.
An effective way for Christopher Kane to establish itself further could be to focus on its international outreach – perhaps by opening stores in China, with its booming luxury market – or considering an accessories range. The latter is something Kane has already shown interest in, however, having launched his first leather goods range in February 2014. Handbags generally have a much greater profit margin than luxury clothing, and they can attract a wider range of customers. A scan of Net-a-Porter reveals a limited selection of Kane's clothing runs to a size XL (UK size 14); it has been estimated that the average woman is a UK size 16 (Donnelly, 2014), meaning the 'average' British woman can't fit into Kane's clothes. Until this changes they can, at least, buy his bags.
To conclude, I think Kane's decision to work with Kering was smart – as Bradford concedes: “the financial backing of a big company can be a godsend. It means money for advertising … lavish catwalk shows … and it means manufacturing and distribution is taken care of.” (2014, Chapter 4, Kindle location 1771) While the brand has yet to launch an e-commerce function on its website or launch any advertising campaigns, it seems Kering, given their track record so far, will push Kane in those directions in the future. Although precise figures are unavailable, a WWD article reveals that Kane's estimated turnover has increased from £7 million to £11 million since Kering's acquisition of the label (Conti, 2015).
Bradford, J. (2014) Fashion Journalism.
Carreon, B. (2012) The Kate Middleton Olympic Fashion Parade. [online] Forbes. Available at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/bluecarreon/2012/08/12/the-kate-middleton-olympic-fashion-parade-2/
Conti, S. (2015) Christopher Kane: The Stargazer. [online] WWD. Available at: http://wwd.com/fashion-news/designer-luxury/christopher-kane-the-stargazer-wwd6-10117914/
Crane, D. (2000) Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity in Clothing.
Davies, H. (2009) British Fashion Designers.
Donnelly, L. (2014) Size 16 mannequins make being fat 'normal'. [online] The Telegraph. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-health/10726590/Size-16-mannequins-make-being-fat-normal.html
Frankel, S. (2007) Bright young thing. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/brightyoungthing-from-a-front-room-in-dalston-christopher-kane-produces-the-brightest-sexiest-and-you-may-have-noticed-shortest-dresses-that-fashion-has-seen-for-years-on-the-eve-of-just-his-second-show-susannah-frankel-finds-a-young-man-inspired-by-galliano-and-rambo-and-determined-to-prove-hes-no-onetrick-pony-464888.html
Gibson, M. (2012) A Year Later, the Kate Middleton Effect is Still Going Strong. [online] TIME. Available at: http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/04/27/a-year-later-the-kate-middleton-effect-is-still-going-strong/
Grose, V. (2011) Basics Fashion Management 01: Concept to Customer.
Ings-Chambers, E. (2015) Feminine wilds. [online] The Sunday Times. Available at: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/style/fashion/Beauty/article1540555.ece [Accessed 14/05/15]
Knowles, J. (2013). Rich Pickings. Drapers (February 9th 2013), pp.21-22.
Milligan, L. (2009). Going Going Kane. [online] Vogue UK. Available at: http://www.vogue.co.uk/news/2009/02/13/christopher-kane-sells-out-on-net-a-portercom
Mower, S. (2012) Christopher Kane: Living the Dream. [online] Vogue USA. Available at: http://www.vogue.com/865313/christopher-kane-living-the-dream/
Parry, C. (2013) Christopher Kane sets sights on 'next level' after PPR investment. Drapers (January 19th 2013), p.4.
Tungate, M. (2012) Fashion Brands: Branding Style from Armani to Zara (3rd ed).
Thomas, D. (2007) Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre
Rabkin, E. (2012) Making the Case Against Fast Fashion Collaborations. [online] Business of Fashion. Available at: http://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/opinion/op-ed-making-the-case-against-fast-fashion-collaborations
Wright, M. (2009) 5 Ways Social Media Changed Fashion in 2009. [online] Mashable. Available at: http://mashable.com/2009/12/21/social-media-fashion/